Archive for March, 2009

The world’s funniest joke, official

aristocratsMonty Python spoofed the quest for The World’s Funniest Joke in a sketch. Set during World War II, Ernest Scribbler, a struggling British writer, creates the funniest joke in the world and dies laughing. Attempts to retrieve the joke are made, one including an officer who enters the home “aided by the sound of sombre music, played on gramophone records, and also by the chanting of laments by the men of Q Division.” Unfortunately, he also dies.
It is finally retrieved by the British Army, and after careful testing under war conditions, the joke is translated into German for use on the battlefield. Because the joke is so lethal, translators are only allowed to work on one word each. The German translation of the joke is this. Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! … Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.
No? Well if it’s not that one, neither is it the joke called The Aristocrats which was so funny and so infamous that it was the subject of a film a couple of years back. The problem with The Aristocrats joke is this. Although it was Johnny Carson’s favourite joke and the film features famous people like Carrie Fisher, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Robin Williams and Harry Shearer retelling it, there is absolutely no chance of it being repeated here.
Around the same time, the quest for the World’s Funniest Joke finally came to an end with an announcement in New Scientist after the publication of a year long research project by LaughLab, an online survey created by Dr. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in collaboration with the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Some 2 million votes were cast for around 40,000 jokes. However, you can’t help but realise when you look at the top two, that The Aristocrats or anything like it would never make it to any shortlist, so what we actually have is the World’s Funniest Clean Joke. Nevertheless, the survey did throw up some interesting results that tell us a little about the way different cultures use humour.
Flying in the face of stereotypes, Germans were the most likely to find all types of jokes funny, while Canadians were the least amused of the 10 top responding nations. The British, Irish, Australians and New Zealanders favoured jokes involving wordplay. Example: Patient: “Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum.” Doctor: “I’ve got some cream for that!”
Continental Europeans liked surreal jokes. Example: An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.” The clerk examined the paper and told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another Woof for the same price.” “But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”
Americans and Canadians preferred jokes invoking a strong sense of superiority – either because a character looks stupid or is made to look stupid by someone else. Example: Texan: “Where are you from?” Harvard graduate: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.” Texan: “OK, where are you from, Jackass?”
Computer analysis of the survey also threw up a number of intriguing results. Not all animal jokes, for example, are created equal – jokes mentioning ducks were rated as funnier than other jokes.
Anyway, here it is, officially the World’s Funniest Joke (clean division). From an original by Spine Millington:
A couple of hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other man whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The man’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”
Badum. Tish.

Short cuts

ckeeler1We all like short cuts. This is as true for designers and architects as anybody else, which is why they so often rely on iconic products to offer a little visual clue to people, to let them know the place they are in is the right sort of place. Cool. Contemporary. Just like them.

Many of the products they use in this way are 20th Century classics. And often they are chairs. The Barcelona chair. The 3107 chair. The Panton chair. The Eames recliner. Each has not only its own integrity as a design but a widely known iconography upon which designers can draw. An elbow in our ribs, a wink wink, know what I mean? Know what I mean?

These products are also the most copied. The market is flooded with fakes. Even the famous portrait of Christine Keeler that is central to the iconography of the 3107 uses a fake chair.

Power without responsibility

harlotIn the eyes of many people the media is still characterized in Kipling’s memorable phrase as exercising ‘power without responsibility: the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ And the same jaded people cannot view the letters PR without thinking of the word ‘spin’. While this may most noticeably be applied to newspapers, such attitudes are present in a more dilute form in the world of trade publishing where the problem is somewhat complicated by the presence of a large number of magazines who will print any old rubbish they are given, so long as someone’s paying for it, and whether it’s of any use or interest to their readers or not.

Journalists and PR people have always had an ambivalent relationship. They are mutually dependent but distrustful. To oversimplify, many journalists view PRs as an unnecessary third party between them and the people to whom they really want to talk. PRs may also be out to spin a story on behalf of their clients, so what the journalist reports may not be entirely accurate or only tell part of the story. PRs, on the other hand, can resent the suspicion with which they are regarded by journalists and can be disappointed when what finally appears in print is not quite what they (or their client) expects.

These are the day-to-day forces that tug at the interdependent relationship between the two sides The Institute of Public Relations has estimated that over 80 per cent of what appears on the business pages of the newspapers is generated or influenced by the activities of PR people. The figure is proportionately higher in trade journals. The IPR also reports that nearly three-quarters of all PR activity is devoted to the marketing of products and services. Here it is the role of the public relations person to ensure that his or her client and their products and services are presented in the best possible light. Journalists spend hours ploughing through a snowstorm of press information they know has been sent to dozens or hundreds of other magazines and then have to field the inevitable follow-up calls from PRs asking whether they will be using the information. This does not endear the public relations profession to the media.


gurskyshanghaiMy favourite architectural photgrapher is Andreas Gursky. He’s very much a man of our times in the way he documents the world and its people and places. His work is methodical, imposing and BIG.

Balancing act

blackberrybustedI hate Blackberrys*. Even before the banks got us into the terrible mess we’re in, while firms banged on about work-life balance they were also kind of hoping we would all overlook the fact that the laptop and Blackberry they routinely gave us instantly eroded any distinction between the two we may once have enjoyed. Doubtless the work-life ideal will flap around like a dying fish on the banks of our stream of consciousness for a while yet but I hope it’s on its way out.

* Especially the way they force you to worry about how to form plurals. See also: mouses

Runcorn. You can come in, but you can never leave.

buzz_mobiushighwayOne of the favourite words of architects and designers is intuitive. It is one of their BIG IDEAS, even though much of what they do is nothing of the sort.

The most counter-intuitive place on Earth is Runcorn in Cheshire. It is impossible to find your way into or out of Runcorn the same way twice. It is surrounded by a Moebius strip of ‘expressways’ which are liable to pitch you up at any point within a five mile radius without warning. Particularly hard to find is the train station which your eyes tell you is there, alongside the road, but without any discernible means of getting to it. I found the town centre once, but I’m not sure I could again.

It’s the Hotel California of towns. Apart from the Mersey, the only two things I know that have ever found their way out are the translucent ginger one from Girls Aloud and whoever wrote Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please.

So baffling is the process of locating or leaving Runcorn that last year, Miss Runcorn actually came from Leeds. I’m not making this up.

Clarkson and global warming



Well, for a start we can forget what Jeremy Clarkson thinks about global warming. You can tell the world is in big trouble because the oil companies have stopped trying to pay up teams of scientists to prove to us that even if it were happening – which it isn’t – it would not have been their fault  in the first place. Instead they’ve started taking out full page ads in newspapers so they can bang on about how much money they invest in green technology and how environmentally friendly they are.

Now, there is a big problem with the whole idea that anything we do can ever be described as ‘environmentally friendly’ in any way whatsoever. And it is this: our mere existence is inherently damaging to the world in which we live. We do it some damage each time we get in a plane, train or automobile; every time we make or buy something; every time we eat, drink, breathe or fart. So if you want to be ‘environmentally friendly’ my advice is this. Resign from work as soon as possible or, if you own the gaff, close your business down. Then, go home, throw yourself on a compost heap and kill yourself.

I don’t really expect you to do this, but we should see the claim of ‘environmental friendliness’ for the hollow piece of corporate speak it is. Instead we should be striving for a balance between the impact of our existence, our eco-footprint, and the Earth’s ability to deal with it.

While the causes and effects of climate change are a source of ongoing debate, the figure that seems to loom large in many eyes is that the Earth’s capacity to function requires us to emit no more than 9 billion tonnes of CO² a year, a level which would lead to a stable concentration of the gas in the atmosphere.

In population terms that means around 2 billion people emitting 4.5 tons of CO² a year. You can judge how out of whack this all is when you realise that the current population of the Earth stands at around 6.5 billion and the average American emits about 20 tons a year and the average European about 10 tons.

In the face of this, there is a temptation to ‘do your bit for the environment’. This is the level of eco-awareness that encourages companies to use recycled paper and toner cartridges, to send cans and plastic cups for recycling and so on. Welcome though this is, it is essentially a salve for the conscience rather than salvation of the environment.

But what could really make a difference means some very difficult decisions for business owners, organisations and policy makers. Commercial buildings, for example, are responsible for around 57 million tonnes of CO² emissions a year. Cars are responsible for some 68 million tonnes a year and aviation accounts for another 40 million or so.

One idea that has gained credibility recently is carbon offsetting. It has become something of a cause celeb with bands such as Coldplay launching ‘carbon neutral’ albums. The idea is to wipe away the tracks of your eco-footprint by investing in programmes that offset your carbon emissions by planting trees or investing in other schemes aimed at improving the environment.

At its simplest level this may mean buying a number of trees calculated against your carbon emissions. This was the route chosen by Swiss Re, which is working on a ten year plan towards carbon neutrality by cutting its own emissions by around 15 per cent in various ways – each of its 8500 employees currently emits around 5 or 6 tonnes each on average – then offsetting the remainder by investing in the World Bank Community Development Carbon Fund.

Inevitably, carbon offsetting has its critics. Among them – perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not – are Friends of the Earth who argue that the forestry business seems suspiciously keen on the idea, that it is wrong to set up companies that profit from it all, that offsetting may not have the desired effect anyway and that it seems so bloody easy and makes it pretty likely that people will buy the 4×4, drive the kids the 400 yards to school in it each day, then buy a few trees in Bhutan so that they can get away with it.

(With apologies to Johnny Neptune. And for mentioning Coldplay.)

Taste sensation

bennetI think we have experienced a great homogenisation of taste in recent years. One reason why is that we’re surrounded by people guiding our tastes in everything from cars to wine, food, clothes, house design, office design, restaurants, holidays, language, art, music, books and film.

The problem with a universal acceptance of what we mean by ‘good taste’ is that it acts as a brake on change and innovation.

Alan Bennett once made the point in typical style. ‘Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful,’ he wrote. ‘It is a handicap. It stunts. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar; Dickens similarly. Both could fail and failure is a sort of vulgarity; but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line. Taste abuts on self preservation. It is the audience that polices taste. Only if you can forget your audience can you escape.’

It’s not just Fred Goodwin

How the media works

Yesterday, Prince Charles visited the Galapagos Islands. This is how the Times reported it.

 Prince Charles meets Lonesome George

tortoise__01_504724aHe is a male of advanced years, the last of his kind and a fellow regarded by many as an indelible symbol of the way things used to be. What more suitable figure, then, than Lonesome George, the world’s most famous tortoise, to greet the Prince of Wales on his first visit to the Galapagos Islands?

Meanwhile, at The Sun:

Charles ogles boobies


boobiesWe are trespassers in Eden. And what better place for the future king to visit than here, where the natural world that so delights him remains sovereign? Where you can swim with the Galapagos penguins, walk among giant tortoises and watch sea lions basking just feet away.

And if all that fails to get you going, you can always check out the boobies.

March 2009

Desk Jockey